Wednesday Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg launched the new social network LeanIn.org devoted to helping women encourage each other to "lean in" to their careers. This week and going forward, HuffPost Women will be featuring posts from women reflecting on the moments in their careers when they "leaned in" -- pursued their ambitions despite their fears -- or "leaned back" -- focused more on other aspects of their lives so that they could lean in with more energy later on.
If you've ever been on water skis, you know there are certain physics involved, mainly Newton's Third Law of Motion: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. When the boat begins to pull away, you have to provide an equal and opposite counterweight, otherwise you'll get yanked right out of your skis.
In short, in order to fly, you have to lean back.
Earlier in my career, I worked as a producer and reporter in cable television news. I put in 12-hour days researching, writing, shooting, editing, taping standups and supervising shows. I loved it.
During my first pregnancy, I worked 1am to 9am producing a live morning program until I was 8-1/2 months along and the doctor suggested it might be advisable to get more sleep. I left the office on a Wednesday night and gave birth before lunch on Thursday. Twelve weeks later I was back on the job. I moved to a shift that started around 4:30am and ended at 1:30pm to have more time with my daughter. I finished a master's degree at night. I had another baby.
Eighteen months later, my company merged with another one, and several hundred people were laid off. I was assured on the way out the door that this had nothing to do with my performance, a statement I grasped like a lame booby prize while I seethed and pretended not to be crushed. The same day I was on the phone to potential employers, and that week published my first freelance piece in The New York Times. I networked like a fiend. I got job offers.
But something inside had shifted. I knew I had to lean back from the calcified culture of 12-hour days in an office and find a different model, one that integrated work and family in a more holistic way. I was inspired by journalists like Anna Quindlen and Meredith Vieira, who had both made stunning exits from positions of power to redefine their own success. I just didn't know what my way would be.
And being a pathological planner, pressing forward into the tunnel of the unknown was terrifying. I recall a particularly dark moment of uncertainty after a series of freelance gigs had ended, one with a sudden bankruptcy that left me unpaid for several weeks of work. There was nothing on the horizon but a void. That night I promised myself I would not turn back, even if we went broke. I would lean into my own path and trust.
The next day I was offered my first book contract.
Over a decade I built a thriving business working mainly from home, learned critical skills that I never would have in television, and in my best year, more than tripled my old salary. I never worked harder, but eliminating the commute and gaining the flexibility to decide where I would be and when changed the world.
And while "holistic" is a laughable word to describe the messy chaos of mixing work and family in the way I chose, it was right for me. The sweet small miracles of childhood slip away forever in time, and it was a gift to be present for so many of them. I'm grateful to a supportive husband and clients who cared more about the quality and timing of my work than how it got done. I'm indebted to the inventors of technologies that made it feasible. And I revere the feminists who demanded that women be given a seat in the office in the first place. (I eventually got to thank both Quindlen and Vieira in person.)
One by one my three daughters let go of my hand and moved into their own worlds of school and sports and friends. I finally had enough of bouncing ideas off the dog, and went back to work in an office, which is far more flexible than the one I left a decade earlier. But my hope is that my daughters and their peers will have more systemic support to lean into their careers. The U.S. is the only industrialized nation that doesn't mandate paid maternity leave. This would be an excellent place to start.
Leaning back against the counterweight of an unyielding work environment and into my own values, I was able to redefine success. And I learned that the unknown can be your friend, if you offer it your hard work and trust.
Just lean back on the skis and fly.
Laura Rowley is Executive Producer of Original Video and Partnerships for The Huffington Post.
Have a "Lean In" or "Lean Back" story of your own? Please email it it in 500 words or fewer, along with a headshot, bio and personal photo to email@example.com.
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